“You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.” —Psalm 23:5
David, who composed Psalm 23, was a great and successful military leader. Despite his successes (or perhaps because of his successes), he spent much of his life under threat from enemies. Sometimes these were enemies of his people. Other times, he faced threats from within his own people, from a king he served loyally and a son he loved unconditionally.
So when David wrote about God’s presence and provision when in the presence of enemies, it wasn’t abstract or hypothetical. David knew what it meant to have people out for his head. David knew the deep pain of being deeply wronged by those he deeply loved. In the midst of this pain, David knew the power of the presence of God, the God who was greater and more faithful than David’s enemies. David knew that the faithfulness of God was far more important than the faithlessness of his friends and family.
David knew exactly who he was talking about when he talked about “enemies.” For most of us, we probably don’t think of people as “enemies” too often. Yet, unfortunately, all of us face times when we’re treated as enemies. Maybe you’ve been betrayed or rejected by someone you love. Maybe you’ve been treated unjustly for no good reason. Maybe you’ve been treated with suspicion because of something you have no control over. Maybe you’ve been ignored and neglected, left on the outside looking in. Maybe you’re seen as worthy of disdain because of some political view you do or don’t have. Maybe you’ve been written off as unworthy of respect. Maybe you’ve suffered an inexplicable relational breakdown that hurts like hell and makes no sense.
The reality of living in human society is that we’ll sometimes have breakdowns in relationships. The reality of living in our hyper-connected global society is that these breakdowns can happen at a macro scale that none of us has much individual control over.
People who trust our Heavenly Father are free to respond to this tragic reality in at least two ways.
First, like David we remember that God will not abandon us even if someone else turns on us or abandons us. Even if we’re totally in the wrong in a given situation, God will never give up on us or write us off. God still draws near to us, even in our lowest moments.
Second, as followers of Jesus, we’re called to treat all enmity as one-sided. That is, we reject the premise that we actually have true enemies. In Jesus Christ, God has knit all of us together into one family. He’s broken down dividing lines. When we love and pray for our enemies, as Jesus commanded, we quickly find that those “enemies” don’t remain enemies for very long. This doesn’t necessarily mean that all of our nasty conflicts are satisfactorily resolved (though we should pray for that, too), but it does mean that the category of “enemy” is emptied in our own hearts and minds. It’s impossible to consider someone an enemy when we’re praying regularly for their well-being. No matter what they think about us or say about us or do to us, we see them as someone for whom we wish the very best. And people we wish the very best for are not our enemies.
This is, of course, not easy to do. It’ll be imperfect. We’ll trip and stumble as we implement this. But it’s the only way to truly live. It’s the way of life that gives us the same mindset that God has, the mindset of the God who, while we declared ourselves his enemies, came into our space to suffer and die, to suffer and die so that we would be called his children.